Lessons learned from the film ‘Casablanca’

The recent heat wave across the Eastern seaboard of North America has reminded me of the famous Academy Award-winning movie “Casablanca” (1942), which revolves around the gin joint dubbed Rick’s Café Américain. There probably isn’t a single person over 40 who can’t remember this incredible 100 minutes of film history. However, I imagine none of you have ever looked at it as a guide for what to do and what not to do at your own property. Here’s my spin on the key lessons we can gain from this cinema classic: 

1. Be visible. Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) not only has his name in lights above the door, but he makes an appearance every night. He mingles with his guests freely, acknowledging the VIPs and regulars. He has an easy rapport with the staff, who all instinctively know when to (and when not to) approach him. How often do you as a general manager drop in to visit guests at your restaurant, bar or pool? Does your team, at any level of employment, feel comfortable speaking with you directly?

2. As an owner, don’t act like Major Heinrich Strasser (Conrad Veidt). The proverbial bad guy doesn’t just walk through Rick’s — he struts and makes demands. The Major wants everyone to know that he’s in charge, even though it’s under Rick’s care. Owners must respect the decisions of their GMs, even when there’s disagreement. An owner’s presence on property should be low profile — no one wants a Strasser!

3. VIPs should be respected and given privacy. When Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) and Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman) enter Rick’s, they are discretely ushered to a private table. Staff is quickly summoned and makes them comfortable. Several patrons approach them, but are turned away. Despite a romantic entanglement with Ilsa, Rick is nonetheless professional and calm.

4. You need security. People like Signor Ferrari (Sydney Greenstreet) and Ugarte (Peter Lorre) are not savory characters. You see them, and you just know that trouble is brewing. Take the same approach at your property. Ensure that your loss-prevention team is well versed on all aspects of security and any potential for lawsuits.

5. Make friends with your local sheriff or police force. In the movie, Rick has an outstanding relationship with Captain Louis Renault (Claude Rains) and relies upon Renault’s creative rule bending to keep the café open, despite the war setting. At the film’s conclusion, when they watch Victor and Ilsa fly off the tarmac, Rick once again relies on his friendship to save him from the firing squad. While I am not advocating anything illicit, a close relationship with the police in your area is a wise and strategic move.

6. Live music beats a DJ anytime. True, not everyone is Sam (Dooley Wilson) the piano player, with an eternally humble mood and the lyrics of “As Time Goes By” flowing angelically from the lips. But live music makes Rick’s both exciting and romantic. A piano can easily be overlooked as a way to enhance the ambiance of a lobby, bar or restaurant. So if you have one, why not put it to good use?

7. Not everyone likes karaoke. At one point, a group begins to sing “Die Wacht am Rhein,” (“The Watch on the Rhine”) a German patriotic song. Infuriated, Laszlo asks the band to play “La Marseillaise,” with authorization from Rick. In doing so, everyone bursts out in unison, so much so that the Germans end up being washed out. In retaliation, Strasser orders Renault to close the Café. The implications for modern hotel management are that you have to respect all patrons, as the results can be detrimental to your business.

8. Above all, a full house is a happy house. In every scene, the café is alive, with hardly an empty table and staff constantly rushing to satisfy orders. Profits must surely be flowing. This boils down to a fundamental aspect of human behavior.  Have you ever been to an empty nightclub and felt out of place? Would you feel the same way if the place were packed? Crowds of people feed one another and amplify a given atmosphere, leading more often than not to higher overall per-person sales at a bar or restaurant. I always advocate occupancy ahead of rate, and Rick’s is certainly a great example of why.

Of course, all these hotelier takeaways are layered underneath a timeless love story that I’d recommend to anyone who has yet to see this historic gem. “Casablanca” isn’t the only film to debut an embroiled innkeeper, and I’m sure you have your own favorites to draw comparisons to the industry. Maybe for winter I’ll give a spiel on what can be learned from Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining.” (On second thought, maybe not!) But for now, here’s looking at you, kid.